Saturday, 28 July 2018

The Silent Pioneer

A while ago, you read about some of the cartoon series on movie screens in 1924, courtesy of articles in Exhibitors Trade Review of August 16th that year. There was one more article, a profile of J.R. Bray, who operated what is conceded to be the first successful animation studio.

The article calls Bray a “funmaker” but, to be honest, if Bray had “fun” working in animation, it’s hard to tell from photos of him taken in the era. He seems to have treated cartoon production as solely a business and in pretty well every picture I’ve seen, he is shown with a stiff, business-like mien, as if taking his picture was cutting into his profit-making. He spent time in interviews talking about his patents on the animation process and lawsuits to enforce them; the comedies he produced brought money, not joy. Others like Walter Lantz, Paul Terry and Max Fleischer animated his films for him. Notice how they’re known by their first names. Bray was always a formal “J.R.”

He lost interest in cartooning and concentrated on industrial films; his studio never made theatrical shorts in the sound era. However, his ancient silent cartoons reaped a second reward when television rose in the late 1940s. He dug them out of storage, slapped stock music beds behind them and advertised them to the growing number of TV stations for use on/as children’s programming.

Bray lived until the age of 99. He died in 1978. Read what Tommy Stathes has to say about him here and here.

John Randolph Bray, Pioneer Cartoonist
IT sometimes has been said that the average cartoonist is more or less a gloomy individual. The same statement has been made of John Randolph Bray of Bray Productions and other companies of an allied nature.
Possibly there may be a basis for the fancied touch of gloom that occasionally appears to surmount the features of this funmaker. When taxed on one occasion with the suggestion that his face seemed to be one of unusual seriousness at times he told the story of his first professional experience as a cartoonist.
Mr. Bray's initial employment following his graduation from the University of Michigan was as cartoonist on the Detroit Evening News. One of his occupations there was drawing the features of the persons brought to the local morgue.
Engraving in newspaper offices in those days frequently was done on chalk, the molding being cut with a sharp steel instrument and the result afterwards sent to the stereotype room, where the completed cut was made.
His school friends used to marvel at the nerve of the young artist in entering such gruesome places, but Mr. Bray seemed to think it was all part of the day's work.

MANY stories have been told by his former newspaper associates of his unusual assignments. One of these was when he called on an undertaker at 2 o'clock in the morning in order to get a drawing of the features of a certain body in the keeping of that functionary. The undertaker removed the lid merely remarking "Go ahead and help yourself."
Mr. Bray was born in Detroit and educated in the schools of that city. He early manifested a tendency toward the artistic. His school books such as are at present in existence will bear testimony to that statement. On one occasion his teacher detected him surreptitiously outlining on the blackboard one of the creatures of his fancy. She stopped him and told him that really he should be dismissed for the day, but that she thought the drawing once started should be completed, and he was instructed to finish it.
All through his early school days he submitted drawings to different comic papers. Even at that age the humorous strain was highly developed. In high school and in college he drew regularly for the school publications.

IT was in 1901 Mr. Bray joined the Detroit Evening News as a cub artist. Then he went to New York City, where he obtained a position with an advertising agency. A little later he joined the Brooklyn Daily Eagle as staff cartoonist, remaining until 1904, when he resigned to take up freelance work.
The pages of Punch, Life and Judge for 1905 and 1906 contain many cartoons signed by John Randolph Bray. The artist in 1907 joined the McClure syndicate, and through this instrumentality his work was circulated throughout the United States.
It was about this period there occurred to him the thought that if cartoons and comic strips were such a hit in the newspapers they should be even more successful on the screen. With this idea in mind he began the creation of his first animated cartoon.
Not satisfied that it should be merely a curiosity, he determined to work with the idea of completing a commercial product — one that would rank with any other form of screen entertainment.
In 1912 Mr. Bray completed a dog cartoon and Pathe Freres, as the great motion picture house then was known, lost no time in acquiring the novelty. The artist immediately made application for basic patents on this method of making pictures.
The dog cartoon went over with such success that Pathe ordered six more and they met a similar reception. The order gradually was increased to an additional twelve and then to one each week.
Soon afterward Mr. Bray conceived the idea of Colonel Heeza Liar, the first cartoon character of the screen. The Standard Cinema Corporation is releasing the more recent adventures of the doughty colonel.
In 1913 Mr. Bray found himself forced into the organization of what became the Bray Studios, which soon had on its roster a list of forty artists. In 1915 the company signed a contract with Paramount for the distribution of Bray Paramount Pictographs, the first magazine of the screen.

ONE of the features of this release was the famous character Bobby Bumps. A precedent was formed at this time by leasing for five years instead of selling the negatives outright.
In 1916 Bray Pictures Corporation took over the Bray Studios. Paramount continued until 1920 to issue Bray product, when it discontinued its short subject department, and the Bray material was transferred to the Goldwyn company.
Following the inauguration in 1922 of the Bray Romances of Science Mr. Bray a year later invented the Brayco projector, a device doing away with the stereopticon and making available for the home, school and church 3,000 subjects in the Bray Library. It is the latest development in the rapidly expanding work of visual education — and entertainment.

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